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See Inside September / October 2010

Favorite Colors: Color Preference Determined by Desirability of Objects

We like hues that we associate with pleasant things

Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that people would approach or withdraw from objects based on their colors. Bright reds and yellows often mean ripe, delicious fruit, whereas drab yellowish-greens and browns signal ... well, less pleasant things.

To test whether the objects most commonly associated with particular colors really do determine color preference, psychologists Stephen Palmer and Karen Schloss of the University of California, Berkeley, asked a group of volunteers to brainstorm all the common objects they associated with each of 32 colors. When presented with yellow, for example, they listed things such as bananas, canary birds and mustard, among other items. A second, separate group then rated the appeal of every object on a scale of negative 100 (icky) to 100 (lovely), and a third group rated how well each color matched each object (for instance, bananas are in­deed highly associated with the color yellow, but mustard is less so, perhaps because some people think of it as closer to brown).

Based on all the ratings, the researchers calculated a mathematical weight for each color indicating the strength of its link with well-liked objects. Finally, a fourth group of volunteers indicated how much they liked or disliked the original 32 colors using a sliding scale. The experimenters found that the last group tended to like the colors with the highest weights—the colors the first three groups linked most strongly to pleasing objects.

The next question is, Are color cues for approach and withdrawal genetically etched into our brains? Or do our experiences shape our preferred palette? Pal­mer’s group is now testing people from the U.S., Mexico and Japan to see if the colors and objects they like differ—and also to see if avid Berkeley football fans have come to hate their archrival Stanford’s particular shade of cardinal.

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